It's progress that Darian Cooper could be the odd man out at defensive tackle.
Yes, D-line coach Reese Morgan has said the Hawkeyes will play a rotation, perhaps up to as many as eight player. Yes, Cooper, a 6-2, 280-pound sophomore, will get his share of playing time (this is a lock). But there is the possibility that Cooper, who made one start last season, comes off the bench. Probably a "no biggie," but that would be progress in that there is intense competition for playing time on the inside of Iowa's DL.
That's what you're shooting for. That's what will help Iowa get the defense off the ground in 2013.
"I'm getting better," Cooper said this spring. "There are still a bunch of things I need to do. Football is an ongoing process. There's always something that you need to improve on and that's where I'm at."
In sort of a "feet getting wet" kind of a season, Cooper finished 11th on the team with 34 tackles. He also had 3.5 tackles for loss and batted down two passes.
OK, maybe there is something to being a starter that has Cooper motivated. Here was a look into his mentality this spring.
"You're trying separate yourself from the pack," he said. "You're fighting for a starting position in the spring, but you really win it in August."
Key 2012 factor: Does it seem as though Cooper is older than a redshirt sophomore? He saw action right away as a starter last season. After the opener against Northern Illinois, Steve Bigach settled in and Cooper saw rotational time, which was considerable. In that context, the season can be viewed as a success for Cooper. But, if you ask him, he probably would've wanted a few more starts, or to have contributed a little more. That's how these guys are wired. That's why they are where they are.
The point here is that Cooper is still a young player. As far as D-linemen go, especially at Iowa, where it takes time to grow DL, throw out the redshirt year as an option. It's more of a requirement.
Cooper learned the lessons quickly thanks to former Iowa tackle and current Detroit Lion Riley Reiff.
“When I first got here, I was so used to playing in high school and running, maybe giving a guy the shoulder, maybe him falling back or stumbling but definitely moving,” Cooper said. “So, I’m running at Riley Reiff. I turn and — BOOM! — I hit him.
“I’m like what is this? I hit him and my legs stopped. Then, I feel two tree-trunk arms hit me.”
Offseason factor: Cooper went into the offseason weighing 280 and came out at the same weight. It's probably a different 280 than the 2012. They put a ton into these bodies and they don't stay static.
OK, Cooper's height.
"You look at a guy like Darian Cooper," D-line coach Reese Morgan said. "I don’t know what he’s listed at, but we are eye level to eye level here. Coop has got some good skills. He’s still coming back from a little downtime [some undisclosed injury this spring or winter], but we would like to have some guys inside that have some girth that can stand up against the run."
That's not only the question for Cooper, but that question stands for a few players on the D-line. Iowa doesn't get the cookie-cutter DLs. It takes time to develop them. Think Mike Daniels more so than Adrian Clayborn.
Competition: Cooper begins camp listed behind Trinca-Pasat. This is how they left things at the end of the 2012 season. Cooper saw all the work this spring while LTP rehabbed a shoulder injury. Again, pride of being the starter is what's up for grabs here more than actual playing time. Iowa rotated seven or eight DL into the game at the end of '12, you can expect that again this season. The thought there is chasing the zone option QBs. Iowa will see at least six of those this season.
Why No. 15?: Iowa needs D-linemen to come through. A disruptive DL will be the safety valve that will relieve pressure from the rest of the defense. Linebackers will be more dynamic. The secondary will have a fighting chance instead of covering for eight to 10 seconds. Cooper is a young, promising player wanted by a lot of schools (14, including Michigan, Florida, Michigan State and Wisconsin).
Outlook: You have to like what Cooper says about being the starter. He wants to be the starter and is ready to jump into the pit and chase it. Competition isn't something that is listed in a program's catalog. but it's something that shines through on the field. It makes everyone better. It's a crucial element in the foundation of Iowa D-line 2013.Click here for an interactive look at the complete Top 45 series.